The ubiquitous “sounds of Christmas” which surround us at every turn from mid-November on, are among the most powerful influences on us to think about Christmas, rather than Advent. “Christmas music” from Jingle Bells and Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer mixed in with Silent Night and Joy to the World fills every store, coffee shop, elevator, and office. Once one of those catchy tunes begins ringing in our ears and repeating again and again, it is difficult to get it out. Thus, one of the ways we can work on “living Advent” is to rediscover some of the rich hymnody of the Advent season.
The season of Advent looks back, to a time before the birth of Christ, to show us how the people of God learned hope in ancient times. And then the season of Advent looks forward, far beyond the birth of Christ, to the true object of our faith, the King who comes to conquer the darkness, restore creation, and establish his Kingdom forever.
Following is a sampling of the Advent hymns:
Come, thou long expected Jesus (#66) is a Charles Wesley hymn, a gentle prayer to the infant King to enter our hearts and raise us to heaven. Although it was originally written as two stanzas of eight lines each, it has been set to the tune STUTTGART as four stanzas of four lines each.
On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry (#76) Although he does not have a feast day in Advent, John the Baptist is clearly one of the chief saints of Advent. He bridges the gap between the Old and New Testaments, proclaiming the traditional prophetic promise of the coming Messiah, and then pointing specifically to Jesus, the long-awaited fulfilment of that promise. This Latin hymn of the 18th century repeats the Baptist’s warning that repentance is a necessary precondition to participation in the coming salvation. The text is set to another early melody, WINCHSTER NEW.
Creator of the stars of night (#60) The Latin original of this hymn first appears in manuscripts of the ninth and tenth centuries. Both a plea for divine compassion and a hymn of praise to God the Creator, Redeemer, and Judge of fallen humanity, it is the office hymn in the monastic office of Vespers. The English translation of John Mason Neale was first published in 1851 and has been revised and updated several times. The plainsong melody, CONDITOR ALME SIDERUM, is the traditional tune associated with this hymn.
Herald, Sound the Note of Judgment (#76) The next for this “new to us” Advent hymn, was written by Moir A. J. Waters who was born in India and spent many years teaching at Indore Theological Seminary and evangelizing in nearby villages. After his retirement, he published three small collections of hymns including the Advent hymn, Herald, Sound the Note of Judgment. With the tune, HERALD, SOUND by Robert Powell of Greenville, South Carolina, this marvelous hymn made its first (and to date) – only hymnal appearance in The Hymnal 1982.
Comfort, comfort ye my people (#67) was written in German by Johannes G. Olearius (1611-1684) for the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. The English translation by Catherine Winkworth was published in 1863. The text paraphrases Isaiah 40 and identifies the voice in the wilderness as John the Baptist. The lively, dance-like tune, PSALM 42, first appeared in the Genevan Psalter in the mid-1500s.
O come, O come, Emmanuel (#56) This ancient advent hymn originated in part from the “Great ‘O’ Antiphons,” part of the medieval Roman Catholic Advent liturgy. On each day of the week leading up to Christmas, one responsive verse would be chanted, each including a different Old Testament name for the coming Messiah. When we sing each verse of this hymn, we acknowledge Christ as the fulfillment of these Old Testament prophesies. We sing this hymn in an already-but not yet-kingdom of God. Christ’s first coming gives us a reason to rejoice again and again, yet we know that all is not well with the world. So along with our rejoicing, we plead using the words of this hymn that Christ would come again to perfectly fulfill the promise that all darkness will be turned to light. The original text created a reverse acrostic: “ero cras,” which means, “I shall be with you tomorrow.” That is the promise we hold to as we sing this beautiful hymn.
Dr. Jeannine Jordan is a church musician, teacher, and concert organist. Visit www.promotionmusic.org to learn more of her work.